Your digital shadow

AN issue that took centerstage at last month’s RightsCon Southeast Asia summit was digital security, an increasingly important consideration in these times of massive online surveillance—whether carried out by states, companies or hackers.

One of the conference sponsors, Access (accessnow.org), operates a Digital Security Helpline that offers direct technical assistance and advice free of charge to activists, independent media and civil society organizations. If you belong to any of these groups, you can send the helpline an e-mail (help@accessnow.org) stating the kind of assistance you need.

Services include rapid response on digital security incidents; personalized recommendations on digital security issues; guidance on the use of digital security tools; and support for securing technical infrastructure, websites and social media against attacks.

At the conference, I sat down with Abir Ibrahem, a security incident handler with the Tunisia office of Access, who offered some basic and very practical advice on digital security—turn on your firewall, use anti-virus software and encrypt your e-mail.

She also gave me some reading material from Me & My Shadow (https://myshadow.org) which illustrates very clearly the digital traces we leave behind when we visit a website, post a message on a social network, share a photograph online, or buy something online.

“In some cases, our data is collected without our knowledge or consent—like when our browsing habits and IP address are collected while we visit a website. In other cases, we choose to hand over our data to third parties—when we share photos on Facebook, or book a flight ticket, for example. Through all such activity, we leave digital traces which result in the creation of our digital shadow,” says the site created by the Tactical Technology Collective.

On the website, you can learn more about the size of your digital shadow (Trace My Shadow) by checking off what devices and online services you use. Based on my usage, I have a total of 109 traces. “That’s a lot of traces, isn’t it?” the site asked, then offered five tips and five tools to reduce my exposure.

Another useful resource, particularly for journalists and media organizations, comes from Safer Journo (https://saferjourno.internews.org/), which is a free and open-source curriculum guide for media trainers who teach students, professionals and peers digital safety and online security.

“A clean and protected PC is fundamental to your digital privacy,” Safer Journo says. “If your PC is infected with a virus or if it doesn’t take advantage of some common safety features. Other efforts to protect your data may be undone.”

In a Quick Start supplement, Safer Journo offers some common recommendations to make your PC and online accounts more secure:

1) Get an anti-virus application. An anti-virus application protects against malicious software that can damage your PC or give someone access to your files.

2) Update everything. An anti-virus program needs to be updated frequently to keep it current with new viruses and other exploits. Some programs will allow automatic updates while others will need to be updated manually.

3) Enable automatic updates. In Windows on in Mac OS X, turn automatic updating on to get important security updates when they become available.

4) Make sure your PC firewall is on. Both Windows and Mac OS X have built-in firewalls or software that tells your PC to ignore Internet connections you didn’t request.

5) Use strong passwords. Passwords that are short or easy to guess don’t offer much protection for your PC or your online accounts. Make passwords long, don’t make them personal, and avoid using the same password for more than one account.

6) Encrypt everything. Encryption programs let you lock up files on your PC with a password so that someone else can’t read them. If you don’t already encrypt your files, you may want to consider using the free utility called TrueCrypt.

If all these precautions sound a bit overboard, it might help to recall what former US National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said: “Even a paranoid can have enemies.”

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